Since Ellen DeGeneres graced the cover of Time Magazine more than a decade ago under the headline “Yep, I’m Gay,” coming out in Hollywood has become an increasingly common — and typically headline-grabbing — phenomenon.
However, the recently televised revelation by Family Ties star Meredith Baxter, 62, that she’s a lesbian has put a well-known face to an emerging demographic in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community — individuals who come out later in life.
Earlier this year, talk show titan Oprah Winfrey devoted both a program on her chatfest and a feature in her magazine to exploring the subject of women leaving men for other women.
One of the guests on the show was comedian Carol Leifer, who came out around 40. While she’s been with her female partner for more than a decade, Leifer had once been married and dated fellow comics Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.
Baxter, perhaps best-known for her role as matriarch Elyse Keaton in the popular 80s TV series, had been married three times and is the mother of five.
But in an interview with “Today” show host Matt Lauer, she revealed that she had had a “later-in-life recognition” of her sexuality and has been in a relationship with her girlfriend for four years.
“Some people were saying ‘Were you living a lie?’ You know, the truth is, not at all,” Baxter told Lauer, saying she’d only been out for the last seven years.
Baxter said she’d always had a great deal of difficulty connecting with men in relationships, but she was also involved with people who made her think they were the problem.
“It never occurred with me to think, ‘Oh, it’s me.”’
Susan Gabriel commended Baxter for being “courageous” in speaking publicly about it and said she could sympathize with the actress’s feeling of “awakening” because she’s been there.
The North Carolina-based writer and counsellor was in her 30s and married with two young children when she fell in love with her best friend.
“I think it’s a huge decision whatever age you are, but I think the older you are, the more it perhaps feels — although it feels risky at any age to be yourself — to be authentic and kind of know beforehand that that’s going to be judged,” she said.
“It’s a brave thing to take a step like that, and I admired what she was able to do.”
Now in her 50s, Gabriel has been with her female partner for nine years.
But in earlier days, when she was coming to terms with her sexuality, extensive support networks for gays and lesbians simply didn’t exist.
“I was incredibly scared. I felt like I was the only person in the world this was happening to,” she said.
Gabriel wrote and self-published a novel “Seeking Sara Summers,” which is loosely based on her experiences.
“I get a lot of emails from women saying, ‘You’ve written my story’ and they’re very grateful.”
Julie Richards, co-executive director of the Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity in Saskatoon, said it’s not uncommon for individuals to come out late in life. But she believes it’s something that will happen less with kids coming out younger.
In the centre’s youth group, the average age used to be 19; now it’s probably 14 or 15, she said.
“The people who are coming out now, somebody like Meredith Baxter … grew up in a very different time and a different generation, so there was a lot of effort put on hiding or convincing people that they could change,” she said. “All you had to do was get married and have a family.”
“I think that generation is still dealing with those kind of issues whereas I think we’ll see less of it 20, 30 years from now because kids are coming out in high school.”
Access to the Internet and networking sites are helping to decrease the isolation, she said.
“I think we’re still dealing with some of the same issues in rural communities, but at least they still have access sometimes to 1-800 numbers or websites and email and Facebook.”
Stacy Green, president of PFLAG Canada, a national organization to support people with issues around gender identity and sexual orientation, was born in Lethbridge, and raised in rural Alberta. He had been married seven years and had three kids when, at age 27, he came out.
“I knew I was gay from the time I was probably about 10 years of age, but you put that aside and you do what’s expected to you,” he said.
“When I was about 27, thanks to things like the Internet and new forms of media and obviously evolving social attitudes, I decided I had to be who I was.” At the time, his biggest concern was for his wife.
“There’s all this stigma you sort of see in the media where ‘Oh, she turned him gay.”’
“That was a huge concern, making sure she understood it wasn’t her fault, that it was entirely something that was built in from birth.”
On The Net:
Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity: www.avenuecommunitycentre.ca
PFLAG Canada: www.pflagcanada.ca